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History of Tea


Although tales exist in regard to the beginnings of tea being used as a beverage, no one is sure of its exact origins. According to one legend, in 2737BC, the Chinese emperor Shen Nung was sitting beneath a tree while his servant boiled water, when some leaves from the tree blew into it.

Shen Nung decided to try the infusion and the resulting drink was what we now call tea.

It is impossible to know whether there is any truth in this story, but tea drinking certainly became established in China many centuries before it had even been heard of in the west. In the 16th Century there are brief mentions of tea as a drink among Europeans. However, it was the Dutch, who encroached on Portuguese trading routes in the last years of the 16th Century, who were the first to ship tea back as a commercial import. Black tea was originally produced out of necessity rather than taste, as traders found that the green tea leaves lost freshness on the arduous trip from China. Merchants started to ferment the leaves to lengthen preservation. It soon became an expensive and fashionable drink and from Holland spread across Western Europe.

Catherine of Braganza

In Britain in 1662, Charles II married Catherine of Braganza. She was a Portuguese princess, bringing with her tea and the fashion for drinking it. Capitalising on this, the East India Company began to import tea into Britain. Tea was still too expensive to be widespread among the working classes; middle- and upper-class men drank it in coffee houses where they relaxed and did business, women drank tea in their own homes. In part, its high price was due to a punitive system of taxation. In 1689 it was so high that it almost stopped sales. It was reduced in 1692, and from then until as recently as 1964, when tea duties were finally abolished, politicians were forever tinkering with the exact rate.

One unforeseen consequence of taxation on tea was the growth of smuggling and adulteration. What began as a small time illegal trade developed into an astonishing organised crime network by the late 18th Century and Britain was importing more tea illegally than legally. By 1784, the government realised that the still heavy taxation was creating more problems than it was worth and slashed it. Suddenly legal tea was affordable and smuggling stopped virtually overnight.

When the East India Company’s monopoly on trade with China ended in 1834, it instigated the cultivation of tea in India. In 1858, the British government took over direct control of India from the East India Company. They were keen to promote the tea industry, increasing cultivation production. By 1888 British tea imports from India were greater than those from China.

Luponde Estate - Organic Cultivation

 British Tea Clipper

Whilst the East India Company still had a monopoly on trade with China there was no rush to bring tea from China to Britain. However, after 1834 individual merchants and sea captains with their own ships raced to bring home the tea and make the most money, using fast new clippers, which had sleek lines, tall masts and huge sails. In particular there were the famous clipper races of the 1860s between British and American merchants. These races soon came to an end with the opening of the Suez Canal, which made trade routes to China viable for steamships.

By 1901, tea had become firmly established as part of the British way of life.

This was officially recognised during the First World War when the government took over the importation of tea in order to ensure that this essential morale-boosting beverage continued to be available at an affordable price. The same was done again during the Second World War, when tea was rationed. The London Tea Auction was re-established in 1952.

The first London tea auctions were held in 1679 by the East India Company. Auctions were held about every three months. Instead of allowing bidding to go on for an unlimited amount of time, a candle was lit at the beginning of the sale of each lot. The sale ended when an inch of the candle burnt away. In 1834 when tea became a ‘free trade’ commodity, the auction was moved from East India House to the new London Commercial Salerooms on Mincing Lane. Many tea merchants established offices there and Mincing Lane received the nickname ‘Street of Tea’. By the mid 19th Century due to tea’s popularity the auctions were held monthly, and soon weekly. By the 1950’s a third of all the world’s tea was bought through the auction. However, improved worldwide communications and the growth of auctions in tea producing nations meant that it gradually declined in importance. The final London Tea Auction was held on 29th June 1998.

As the tea auction declined, an essential element of modern tea-drinking took off; the tea bag. Thomas Sullivan was a tea and coffee merchant from New York City. He tried to cut sampling costs by sending loose tea in small silk sacks. His clients were confused by the new packaging and so put the whole thing into hot water. He started receiving many requests for these ‘tea bags’. Tea bags first began to appear commercially around 1904, but didn’t take off in Britain until the 1970s. Today 96% of tea drunk in Britain is made using tea bags.

Tea is grown all over the world, from Cornwall in England to Waikato in New Zealand.

Tea was introduced to Tanzania by German settlers in 1902.

Commercial production began in 1926 and increased considerably after World War II, when the British took over the tea plantations. Tanzania is currently the 4th major tea producer in Africa. It produces about 32,000 tonnes per annum, which constitutes 1% of the world’s tea production.